Wednesday 2 May 2018

CINEMA REBORN - David Stratton offers his thoughts on the programme and the impetus for restoration

David Stratton (ph: courtesy Transmission Films)
CINEMA REBORN: Interview with David Stratton

The wait is almost over with the very first CINEMA REBORN festival opening tonight. Each film will be preceded by an introduction from a film critic, academic or filmmaker. Among them is award-winning Australian film critic David Stratton, who will be introducing Francis Ford Coppola’s oft-overlooked passion project One from the Heart from 1982.

Ahead of the festival, Cinema Reborn Organising Committee members Melba Proestos and Andréas Giannopoulos spoke to Stratton about his top picks of the festival, and the importance of repertory programming and film restoration.

What are you looking forward to seeing at CINEMA REBORN?

The sad thing is I'm not going to be able to see very much, because, as you know I don't live in Sydney, I live in the Blue Mountains. I'm coming down for One from the Heart, which I actually saw again quite recently, so I won't be seeing much but I'm glad to hear that the tickets are selling quite well.

What should people be seeing?

The Night of Counting the Years (Shadi Abdel Salam, Egypt, 1969)
It's a wonderful program. I love the Egyptian film, The Night of Counting the Years (Shadi Abdel Salam, 1969). It's a very, beautiful film, and it's not as well-known as it should be. I showed it many years ago at the Sydney Film Festival and it's an extraordinary film. That for many people will be a real discovery.

I know that the tickets for the film Woman on the Run are selling very well and that was quite a discovery, too, when I saw that for the first time. It's another one of the films that is not as well-known as it should be, and it's very, very good. I think the whole program is excellent.

Why do you think festivals such as CINEMA REBORN that show repertory, restored films are important?

Well, I think that it's very important to have a knowledge of the cinema's past. If you're only familiar with contemporary cinema, then you're missing out. The cinema was born almost at the beginning of the 20th century, and the development of the cinema really parallels the history of the 20th century. So, when you delve back into a film made in America in 1950, you're really finding out more about what America was like then through the film you see, or the other films you see from that period, or the films from France, or wherever it might be. I find a lot more pleasure from films of the past than films of the present, frankly, these days. 

A festival like this which is entirely predicated on retrospectives and restorations has a very important place in Australia, and it's something that we haven't really done. I mean, the film festivals have retrospective sections, but they're not usually quite as willing to go as far back into the past as some of the films that are screening in CINEMA REBORN. So yes, it's very important.

We realised as we were getting such a great response that the festival is filling quite a big gap in Australian film culture.
A huge gap.
Why do you think the restoration of film is important?

Well, film is fragile. Before I can properly answer that, I’ll say that for me the most attractive thing about cinema is the very fact that it allows us to see an art of the past. 

Until the cinema, we were never able to actually know what it was like to go to the theatre in the 19th century, for example. The actors from the 19th century were quite famous, and we could see a drawing of them or a painting of them, or later on, maybe a photograph of them. But we never knew really what they looked like, and certainly not how they performed. With cinema – especially when sound came in at the end of the 1920s – we’re able to see and hear how the great actors of the era used their skills. We can see the young Laurence Olivier. We can see Greta Garbo. We can see Bette Davis. We'll always be able to see them because it's there on film; as long as the film is properly looked after and survives. 

As you know, in the early days, up to about the end of the 1940s, film stock was on a nitrate base and this was very combustible; it was flammable, and it was also prone to disintegration. Films made prior to, let's say, 1950, were in real danger of disappearing altogether. And indeed, some of them have. There are some very important films that no longer exist as far as we know. That is, as far as we know there are no copies of them anywhere in the world. Films by some great directors with some great actors, usually made around the end of the 1920s. That seems to have been a bad period for this sort of thing.

I think now we have a situation where restoration is not just to save the films, but to make sure that they are preserved in the best possible condition. It's amazing that even films made not so very long ago tend to fall into disrepair if they're not properly preserved and looked after.

In a sense the impetus for this – the commercial impetus for this – has been DVDs, Blu-Rays, and now streaming. There is a demand for these things. They're commercially valuable, thank goodness! That means that it's in the interest of the commercial organisations who own the copyright to them to make sure that they're in good shape, and for a festival to show a selection from different countries and different periods of time of films that have been restored like Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950).

Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, USA, 1950)
Woman on the Run was a film that existed only in really bad copies until the restoration that was done a couple of years ago. The restoration was first screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, the famous festival of restored films, which was I think the inspiration for CINEMA REBORN. It was an absolute revelation to see not only a film that many people didn't even know – even film buffs like myself have never seen it – but to see it in an immaculate copy that looks probably as good as it looked when it was first released in cinemas.

We also have to remember too that by its very nature, before cinema was digitalized, the physical film would go through the projector, and every time it went through the projector it would be reduced, in some way or another, through wear and tear and scratches. Unless you kept a really perfect copy somewhere in the archives, this certainly was going to be a problem. We saw it with Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971), the Australian film. It was very nearly lost all together, but saved thanks to the dedicated work of some passionate people.

One of the interesting things about the festival is that alongside the restorations we have two 35mm prints, One from the Heart and Between Wars (Thornhill, 1974). What’s the significance of viewing a 35mm print?

Well, now it’s an experience because you don't get to do it so much anymore. It used to be the normal thing. It doesn't seem to me so very long ago that all that changed and suddenly we're seeing everything on digital. It's like vinyl and CD I suppose. There's a nostalgia for it, and a lot of people think that vinyl is superior. I wouldn’t buy into that argument, but it's the same with film versus digital, because sometimes digital looks better I think (laughs). But of course, it's a great experience to see a film on 35mm, because that's how it was originally made. It'll be interesting to see what One from the Heartlooks like on 35mm.

I think it's a marvellous initiative that you guys and Geoff Gardner and all the people involved in this project have achieved. I think it's exciting, it's important, and it's something I just hope will continue. I hope it will be so successful that there will be bigger and better CINEMA REBORNs in the years to come, and that more and more films of the past will be rediscovered, because there's so much to discover.

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